Skip to main content

A beleaguered gentleman: House Speaker Mike Johnson

The Highland County Press - Staff Photo - Create Article
Rep. Mike Johnson

By Philip Wegmann
Real Clear Wire

The sky is cloudless and blue on a warm April afternoon as a cheerful Mike Johnson, seated on a beige couch next to an unlit fireplace in an office still new to him, contemplates his demise, taking solace in Providence and repeating the words of John Quincy Adams – an illustration of his circumstances almost as much as a reluctant acceptance of fate:

“Duty is ours. Results are God’s.”

The future of the 56th speaker of the House of Representatives also belongs to the Almighty, if not a small cadre of his fellow Republicans. Johnson admits as much in an interview with RealClearPolitics on Monday when asked if he’s prepared to risk his speakership over sending war aid to Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warned that his country will lose to Russia unless the United States approves more military aid. Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, meanwhile, has promised the speaker that he will lose his job if Congress does exactly that.

“You assume risk when you take this job. We don’t back away from risk. I’m going to do the right thing,” Johnson says as storm clouds – literal ones, not just the political variety – roll in. Financing a land war wasn’t “some minor measure on tax policy,” he adds. It instead has “implications for the entire world.” After all, the speaker continues, “what is popular isn’t always right; what’s right isn’t always popular.”

Johnson pauses at that, smiling sheepishly at the “bumper sticker slogan” he’s uttered. Thunder and rain follow the interview, and the storm now follows the speaker as he struggles to survive. He has a possible coup on his hands, and the party leader whom barely anyone really knows could soon be toppled.

The Louisiana Republican’s path to the speakership was the product of chaos after Kevin McCarthy was ousted last October through a motion to vacate, a parliamentary rule that allows a single member to force a vote to remove the speaker. After a unanimous Democratic Party House conference joined forces with eight conservative GOP renegades, McCarthy was out and the ad hoc effort to find his replacement began. More seasoned Republicans volunteered for the job. Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio. Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota. All fell short, one by one.

The fourth nominee was different. “We were finally just so sick of it,” recalls Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, “that we all threw our hands up, and said we don’t have anything against this guy. Let’s just go with him.” Three weeks of infighting ended when the conservative and centrist wings of the GOP made peace. Congress elected Johnson, the vice chair of the GOP caucus, the lowest man on the leadership totem pole, by a party-line vote of  220-209. “I never aspired to it,” he says of the position. His family hadn’t planned on it either. Johnson’s wife, Kelly, couldn’t catch a flight to D.C. in time to see her husband sworn in.

The New York Times described him as “conservative hard-liner beloved by the far right” who was little-known other than his record as a lawyer and legislator, punctuated by gently articulated opposition to abortion, homosexuality, and gay marriage. His election, the paper reported in a breaking news bulletin, “further cemented the Republican Party’s lurch to the right.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he had never met Johnson. White House aides scrambled to Google the man just elected second-in-line to the presidency. The conservatives who knew of him were ecstatic. 

Johnson introduced himself by telling Congress that they had cast the votes, but the decision had come from above. Leaning on Scripture, the new speaker said in his acceptance speech “that God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific moment in time.” The House assented with polite, if not occasionally bemused, applause. “It’s not like his value set is hidden,” says Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, who hired Johnson out of law school as an aide in the Louisiana  legislature. “You don’t need a decoder ring. Want to know his positions? Read the Bible.”

And Johnson does look, and he often sounds, like a Sunday school teacher. In dozens of interviews with colleagues, friends, and contemporaries, none could recall the bookish lawyer ever raising his voice in anger. “He has the decorum of a Southern gentleman in the DNA,” insists Rep. Clay Higgins, a Louisiana Republican and Freedom Caucus member who calls the speaker “my brother.” He is also a creature of the right, best known before politics as a litigator who filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in defense of “traditional marriage” on behalf of the conservative analogue of the ACLU, a group called Alliance Defending Freedom.

“I don’t know how Rayburn felt about IVF,” jokes South Dakota Rep. Dusty Johnson, who chairs the Main Street Caucus, a group of more moderate Republicans in Congress, “but I think it’s safe to say that Mike Johnson is the most conservative speaker in modern political history.”

A Leadership Newcomer

He can offer more than devotions and hallway homilies, however. A constitutional law attorney, Johnson ingrained himself in the Republican Study Committee when he came to Congress in 2017 and was later elected chairman of the group that churns out white papers as the GOP’s in-house conservative think tank. “He possesses tremendous intellectual firepower,” says Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer, the fifth ranking Republican in the House. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana describes Johnson in a way the speaker himself never would: “He pisses excellence.”

But an impressive resume is no guarantee of success. Johnson had little leadership experience, other than scheduling the one-minute floor speeches members make in the morning to an empty House chamber. He certainly hadn’t negotiated anything of consequence. On his first full day in the job, the rookie speaker sat across the table in the White House Situation Room with President Biden, a man who first ran for the U.S. Senate the year Johnson was born. They’d never previously met.

“That's a pretty tall order, especially when you're brand new as a speaker,” recalls McCaul, who accompanied Johnson to negotiations at the White House three months later. The speaker, still green but growing, held forth to demand Biden defend not just Ukrainian territory but America’s own border. “It was almost like the newly elected junior speaker was growing into the position by educating the president,” McCaul says of Johnson’s lecture to Biden about executive actions that could be taken, sans Congress, to slow the surge of illegal crossings.

"We understand that there's concern about the safety, security and sovereignty of Ukraine,” Johnson told reporters after the meeting wrapped, “but the American people have those same concerns about our own domestic sovereignty and our safety and our security.”

The lesson did not stick. Biden has not taken executive action on the border. Congress has not approved more aid Ukraine either. Conservative hopes of forcing Democrats to swallow beefed up border security in exchange for more war funding dimmed and now seem out of reach.

“Mike Johnson has constantly been calling me ‘a friend,’” Greene complains. “I don't even know Mike Johnson!” She has haunted the speaker for months, promising to topple him with the same motion to vacate that ended McCarthy’s tenure if Johnson moves more Ukraine aid. “He's not a friend of mine.” MTG, as Greene is often referred to, details during an interview with RealClearPolitics the alleged sins of the speaker against MAGA. They are many.

MTG isn’t just angry about efforts to underwrite the land war in Europe. She is furious about the spending bills that Johnson helped muscle through with Democratic support to avoid a government shutdown, legislative behemoths that ballooned the deficit, and worst of all in her mind, funded the Department of Justice that’s bringing charges against the former president.

“Johnson funded that,” she fumes. “They want to kill Trump,” she said of the myriad of indictments brought by the DOJ. “They want him to die in jail!”

“MAGA, Christian, conservative,” Greene continues, rattling off the resume Johnson presented to the conference. “He has completely betrayed all three of those identities.”

Johnson is barely six months into the job. His colleagues report that the Southern Baptist doesn’t drink, smoke, or cuss. But hardliners like Greene complain that he doesn’t fight either.

“Well,” Johnson replies, back in his office, “that’s just not accurate.” With Trump's blessing, he helped smother a bipartisan border deal deemed insufficiently conservative. The House also impeached Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over his handling of the border. But on spending, the past isn’t dead, he says in so many words. It isn’t even past, as Faulkner might add. Instead, Johnson says he was bequeathed a cursed dowry from McCarthy.

“I inherited a budget deal made by my predecessor that was unchangeable,” he explains. With one half of one third of government barely under his control, the speaker reports running into a brick wall while negotiating with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader, wasn’t any help either.

“I was reminded very quickly by the other three of the four corners that ‘No, the deal was made,’” Johnson says in recapping weeks of negotiations.  

“It doesn't apply to me,” he shot back.

“‘Oh, yes, it does. It's the House’s deal,’” they replied. “So, we did the best we could within that to fight for our policy priorities,” Johnson sighs, “and we got many of them.” But his right flank isn’t satisfied by wins on the margin, despite one of the slimmest majority margins in U.S history.

Walking a Narrow Path

Enter coalition government, where the byword is compromise, a liability for Johnson when conservatives consider bipartisanship a bitter poison.

The speaker holds the majority, yes, but only by a margin of 218 to 213. More than a quarter of his caucus, 55 Republicans, a recent Wall Street Journal analysis found, consistently vote against major government spending bills. To get around his right flank’s objections, and to keep the government from shutting down, Johnson has resorted to a maneuver called suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds supermajority of votes. A majority of Democrats, not Republicans, have supplied needed votes. Of course, Johnson could have thrown a Hail Mary. He could have threatened a shutdown to try and force the White House and Senate to his will.

“The people who are the most frustrated about the spending process wanted us to shut the government down,” Johnson explains. “They fail to acknowledge the reality that a government shutdown would not behoove the country or our chances to prevail in November.” If he had cast his lot with the hardliners and the government went dark, Johnson insists, it would have “backfired” and given “the White House all the cards.”

This pains the speaker. He sees himself as a conservative, and not so long ago he regularly broke bread with the Freedom Caucus. “They are some of my best friends,” he said years ago when running for RSC chairman, describing “the tremendous amount of respect” he had for how those hardliners thwarted then-Speaker Paul Ryan’s plans to pass a watered-down version of Obamacare repeal. He was right there with them trying to jam the speaker. He hated the parliamentary tricks leadership played, especially the thousand-page bills dropped overnight on the rank-and-file. “I didn’t sign up to do legislation that way,” Johnson complained. He was an insurgent – though a polite one.

Barely finished with his freshman year, Johnson was accustomed to “the arm-wrestling routine.” In the newsroom of the conservative Washington Examiner, the lawmaker nobody knew praised a robust back-and-forth. “We never compromise our core principles,” he said then of how conservatives ought to legislate, “but you have to compromise your preferences sometimes.” Almost as an afterthought, he added, “otherwise, the system breaks down.”

It was the summer of 2018. With unified government, Republicans could afford to squabble a bit,  up until the point they lost the House and then the White House and Senate. One thing Johnson vowed never to change: a promise to his family. “When I go home,” he explained, “I want to look my kids in the eye and tell them that daddy acted like a gentleman.”

This past March, Johnson felt he owed Biden an apology. Seated just over the president’s shoulder during the State of the Union address, the speaker couldn’t mask his expressions of exhaustion and exasperation as Biden laid into Republicans. The two next met on Capitol Hill for the Friends of Ireland luncheon where Johnson toasted Biden as “America's most famous Irishman.” On loan from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, his pint glass was the same one Reagan used during a 1984 visit to Ireland. The Guinness the Southern Baptist speaker drank was non-alcoholic.

Johnson pulled Biden aside to “apologize for the eye-roll memes that went around the world.” The president laughed, then told the speaker he was glad Johnson was better behaved than Nancy Pelosi had been during the speeches of his predecessor: “I’m just grateful you didn’t rip my speech up.” The speaker replied, “Well, Mr. President, don't think my friends back home didn't want me to light it on fire.”

It may have been a missed opportunity. A little arson might have endeared him to the bomb throwers in his caucus. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich recently commiserated that the current speaker was leading “the most complicated House since the Civil War,” a sentiment Johnson doesn’t dispute. “It is an extraordinary time of challenge,” he says as members of his own party plot against him.

“We're going through a valley right now,” Johnson insists, “but I'm very bullish on the November election cycle, and I believe we're going to be in a much better place on the other side of this.” He himself may not make it. The life spans of Republican speakers are shrinking. Predecessors John Boehner, Ryan, and McCarthy were run out of town due to rebellions, exhaustion, or a mix of both.

Democrats don’t seem to have the same problem, a fact not lost on Johnson. On the other side of the aisle, he sees a party that “thinks like a union, they really do. They think as collectivists, as a body, and it’s easier to move them as social animals.” The Party of Lincoln, on the other hand, is made up of “rugged individualists by nature. We are deeply principled, and we just don’t yield as easily.” This is “a great blessing” Johnson says, “but it's also a great challenge when you have a single-vote margin in a legislative body where you need everybody to work and move in the same direction.” When combined with a 24-hour news cycle and compounded by social media, he continues, “there are challenges right now that no previous speaker has had to contend with.”

Greene filed her motion to vacate with the House clerk right before Congress left for Easter recess. She chose not to privilege the resolution, which would have triggered an immediate floor vote, referring to the motion instead as “more of a warning than a pink slip.” What has followed, according to one senior GOP aide, is an exercise in “Nixon-era Mad Men theory.” The question is not if, but when, a challenge will come.

“If we vacate the chair a second time, there is no one who could successfully lead this conference. No one. That person does not exist, not only in the House. They don’t exist in this country,” Dusty Johnson, the moderate Republican, groaned. He added, “If we are so broken that we are going to perform this Greek tragedy a second time, then what a clown show.”

“I consider Marjorie Taylor Greene to be my friend. She’s still my friend,” Higgins said in a video cut straight to social media shortly after the motion to vacate was filed, “but she just made a big mistake.” A member of the Freedom Caucus, Higgins split with GOP brass on both spending packages and opposes more funding for Ukraine. He still backs the speaker, however. “Brotherhood is the respect that you extend to your brother to fight his fight,” Higgins says of the withering criticism Johnson now faces. “He's never been attacked the way that he is suffering now that he's the speaker, which is almost an impossible job in the best of circumstances.”

“People get pissed off up here, brother, and they say {crap} they don’t mean,” Higgins says of Greene’s assertion that the speaker betrayed his Christian identity. “Character,” he added, “really emerges when you do not smash somebody who has given you cause to smash them.”

Johnson has not retaliated against members of his party for defying his leadership, and there was a feeling that Greene’s revolt might be a mutiny of one. Then Rep. Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican and perennial thorn in the side of each speaker he has served with, co-sponsored the motion to vacate and called on Johnson to resign. Asked what the final straw was, foreign aid or a recent bill renewing FISA, Massie responded on Twitter “all of the above.” The libertarian added, “This camel has a pallet of bricks.”

‘Code of Faith’

His sudden elevation brought with it an evolution for Johnson. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, he once railed against what he saw as abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Then Johnson walked into a sensitive compartmented information facility.

“We got so spun up and so frustrated by it, at one point, we thought about getting rid of the statute,” he recalls of his initial frustrations with FISA as a rank-and-file member. “And then I went to the skiff,” says the man now second in line to the presidency, “and heard classified briefings and how critically important it is to national security.” It was conversations with the likes of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former House Intel Chair Devin Nunes that changed his mind. “They said, ‘We’ve gotta have it; this is why we haven’t had another 9/11 on our shores.’” With their counsel, Johnson explains, “I became a champion of that. I don't want innocent Americans to die.”

And prior to picking up the gavel, Johnson never supported aid for Ukraine either.

“I really do believe the intel and in the briefings that we’ve gotten,” Johnson told reporters ahead of the vote on a foreign assistance plan now seemingly tied to his own fate. “I believe Xi and Vladimir Putin and Iran really are an axis of evil,” he said, warning that Moscow could potentially move further into Europe if not stopped in Ukraine. “To put it bluntly, I would rather send bullets to Ukraine than American boys.”

After a bruising fight with his own party to renew FISA, but before bringing Ukraine funding to the floor for a vote, the speaker decamped for Mar-a-Lago. The meeting with former President Donald Trump had been on the books for weeks, he says. Unlike the rest of Washington, Trump already knows Johnson well.

Like most Republicans, Johnson has a favorite Trump story. Before becoming speaker, he did a pretty decent Trump impression. They first spoke when the congressman was himself jamming GOP leadership, refusing to vote for an Obamacare repeal package that didn’t go far enough in his estimation. The call came one morning as Johnson was finishing his devotions in his office (where he lived). The president wanted him to vote yes on the bill. The congressman stubbornly explained why he had to vote no.

His Bible was open to the Book of Daniel at the time, Johnson was once fond of telling friends, specifically the passage where Daniel interprets the dreams of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. And the congressman felt compelled to tell Trump that, once their call ended, he would pray for the president. The line went quiet. Trump broke the silence: “Tell God, I say hi.”

Johnson still lives in his office when he’s in Washington, although he has since dropped the impression. And either incidentally or by design, the former president offered the speaker a lifeline. "He's doing a really good job under very tough circumstances, and I appreciate that he came to Mar-a-Lago,” Trump said of Johnson at a press conference. But what about his most faithful disciple in Congress? Trump reiterated that Johnson was doing “about as good as you’re going to do,” adding that “I’m sure Marjorie understands that.”

For the speaker, the press conference couldn’t have gone any better. “We delivered the message we needed to deliver,” he says. The trip was important, he adds, because it demonstrated “a unified front for our party,” showing “that our soon-to-be nominee for president and the House leadership here, and the speaker, are 100% in line on our agenda.”

Trump and Johnson – whom the former president once dubbed “MAGA Mike” – couldn’t be more different in temperament. Trump, for instance, once remarked that his greatest contribution to the GOP might just be that he taught Republicans to fight. Johnson, for his part, likely wishes they’d stop fighting one another.

In March, at the sprawling Greenbriar Resort in the mountains of West Virginia, Emmer sought a pragmatic peace. “We don’t have to like each other; we have to respect one another,” he told Republicans gathered for the GOP policy retreat.

“I have to differ with the whip,” Johnson told the conference, “the Bible teaches us to love one another even if we don’t like each other.”

“I can’t imagine John Boehner saying something like that without everyone laughing,” McCaul said of the former speaker famous for smoking Camels and swirling Merlot while in Congress and later lobbying for weed industry once out of it. “But everyone knows Mike is sincere.”

It wasn’t his first sermon. At another retreat, this one in Miami the month before, an exasperated GOP member anonymously griped to Politico about the speaker’s scriptural references: “I’m not at church.” The press was far less charitable. There isn’t much dirt on Johnson. But there was plenty of gawking at the strange Southern gentleman who makes no secret of his faith.

Slate asserted that his covenant marriage, an arrangement not uncommon among evangelicals that sets a higher bar for divorce, reflected a “radical marital strategy.” The New Republic mistook a passing remark about prayer during his acceptance speech as “a gross gaffe.” Rolling Stone implied that Johnson and his son’s use of software to filter out explicit material online was somehow meant to do the opposite.

The speaker isn’t angry at such clueless coverage. He is just disappointed. What he is espousing in his personal life, without mandating it for anyone else, Johnson believes, isn’t all that different than what was normal in previous generations, or just a few decades ago. Namely, the expectation that lawmakers have “a moral center,” he says, adding, “Washington doesn’t know what to do with a person who actually lives by a code of faith and doesn’t just talk about it.”

But the more extreme MAGA apologists see things differently. “If we're gonna be biblical,” Greene says in her office, “we can say we're supposed to judge them by the fruit they bear, right?” The congresswoman, who recently pointed to an earthquake and the solar eclipse as signs of coming divine judgement, is no less religious in her own way. “God isn't afraid of battle or conflict,” she notes, citing the story of Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple. “Anger,” she concludes, “can be righteous.”

A Way Forward?

But anger doesn’t counter arithmetic erosion. The GOP majority has been evaporating as members retire early rather than serve out their full terms, and Johnson can now only lose one vote on legislation. The defining story of his speakership, explains Dusty Johnson, is just “what a lousy hand of cards he was dealt.”

“If this was a movie,” the South Dakota congressman says, there would be a moment where the speaker would walk onto the House floor and deliver a speech so perfect that “through sheer force of oratory, he would bend the will of the United States government. That is not the way real progress happens in democratic republic.”

A final tragedy or early triumph for Johnson may be imminent. His far right wing is in open rebellion over a foreign aid package that does not include border security reforms. Challengers are reportedly lining up support to replace him. Leadership elections, and the chaos that follows, loom. Would he remove the sword that dangles above his head?

“Having a single motion, I don't think anyone in the building believes that's a good idea because it creates a real hindrance to the process itself,” Johnson says in his office this past Monday. It shouldn’t be just erased in the next Congress, he continues: “There should be a motion, but the threshold should be higher. And I think 99% of the people here probably agree.”

Another avenue of temporary salvation exists. An ironic one. Some on the left have vowed publicly that they would ride to the rescue of the most socially conservative speaker in recent memory. Does he have any faith in those promises?

“I have lots of friends in the building,” the speaker says, and “I’ve had a handful of Democrats approach me on the floor and say, ‘Hey, don’t worry about the motion to vacate.’” He doesn’t entertain those conversations, Johnson insists.

The speaker was swept into office in an instant, and he could leave just as quickly. There was hope that Johnson could lead Republicans out of the wilderness, that he could hold together a fractured caucus long enough not just to maintain but grow the GOP majority. He still might. The speaker came into leadership trusting in Providence, and he now trusts his fate to the same.

“We are actually called to bless even those who persecute us and return good for evil,” he says, citing biblical admonishment when asked about the attacks on his character. “And I get a lot of practice in all of that every day now, more than I aspire to.”

 “I don’t hold grudges,” he says. “I easily forgive, and that’s required a lot these days.” This, the speaker says as his fate remains uncertain, “is a liberating way to live.”

* * *

••• Publisher's note: A free press is critical to having well-informed voters and citizens. While some news organizations opt for paid websites or costly paywalls, The Highland County Press has maintained a free newspaper and website for the last 25 years for our community. If you would like to contribute to this service, it would be greatly appreciated. Donations may be made to: The Highland County Press, P.O. Box 849, Hillsboro, Ohio 45133. Please include "for website" on the memo line.

Add new comment

This is not for publication.
This is not for publication.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
Article comments are not posted immediately to the Web site. Each submission must be approved by the Web site editor, who may edit content for appropriateness. There may be a delay of 24-48 hours for any submission while the web site editor reviews and approves it. Note: All information on this form is required. Your telephone number and email address is for our use only, and will not be attached to your comment.